In February-March and October 1998, the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Mstislav Rostropovich, played two seasons of music by Shostakovich, including all the symphonies. Manashir Abramovich Yakubov (b. 1936), director of the DSCH publishing house and president of Russia's Dmitri Shostakovich Society, wrote programme notes for the series, published by the LSO in an illustrated 104-page booklet. What follows is a summary of Yakubov's introductory essay "Shostakovich Yesterday and Tomorrow", his interview with Rostropovich ("Shostakovich's World Is Our World"), and his notes on the works played in the LSO's 15 concerts.
Yakubov begins his introductory essay by remarking on the controversial nature of Shostakovich's public image (alluding, in passing, to "falsified memoirs"):
Some consider him a totalitarian accomplice - for did he not write the cantata Glory to the Communist Party? [(?)The Sun Shines Over Our Motherland, Op. 90, 1952] - others see him as one of its most implacable opponents - for did he not write The Anti-Formalist Puppet Show [Rayok] - a furious, fearless musical caricature of Stalin and his henchmen strangling culture?...
Yakubov notes that Shostakovich's work is rooted in the events of Soviet history - he refers, for example, to From Jewish Folk Poetry as a "direct response to growing official anti-semitism" - and observes that, as time moves on, the music risks losing "some of its sharp sense of reference". This presents the danger that Shostakovich's oeuvre will become "not so much unfashionable as 'purely' classical - the property, in other words, of the academy and school anthologies". Yakubov regards a "pure" approach as quite unsuited to Shostakovich, partly because of his complexity of tone and use of ambiguities, but also because of his wish to reflect a heterodox cultural context (the "motley, chaotic, sound-palette of [his] times, in which the exalted was found jostling unpredictably with the lowly, the modern with the ancient"):
Shostakovich was acutely sensitive, in a way that no one else was, to the ambiguity of all that went on around him, to those glimmering, elusive double-meanings that everything possessed, but which we ourselves have only recently begun to acknowledge as an agonising aspect of our former physical, social, and psychological lives [in the USSR]. He would combine the lyric with the grotesque, and joy with irony, while the weak voice of hope was filtered through the deepest of despair. Grief was intertwined, somewhat paradoxically yet perfectly naturally, with lighthearted frivolity and mindless merriment. Shostakovich sees both sides of the coin at once with his extraordinary double vision. In his ballets and symphonies, his quartets and concertos, the solemn, the formal and the heroic can all suddenly turn shallow and comic, while in a single moment the ridiculous can descend into tragic nightmare.
For Yakubov, this ever-shifting tone arises from its the composer's wish directly to reflect what was happening in the world - and, far from regarding this as an obstacle to universality, argues that it is the very basis of it: "It is this capacity to give shape to actuality that guarantees his art will endure." As for the underlying unity to which Shostakovich's ambiguities and shifting tones refer, Yakubov sees it as related to the liberal tradition of Russia's intelligentsia, with its firm resistance to totalitarianism:
Under no matter which totalitarian regime, bent on enforcing whichever way of thinking, Shostakovich will never fit in with any ruling ideology or official "national idea". He will always remain a subject for discussion, for argument, and for attack or hostility. But also for delight. Shostakovich's music continues to hold its appeal precisely because it is inspired with the spirit of free thought and free creativity, an inspiration derived despite, or perhaps because of, being created under hopelessly oppressive conditions. His music holds within itself the inner secret freedom that has long been a feature of Russian culture.
It was no accident that the mission of preserving freedom fell to music. Under the unimaginable pressure of censorship in the Soviet Union, neither literature nor art, nor the theatre nor cinema could express directly or openly the real feelings people experienced in those times. Shostakovich elaborated a special musical language which his contemporaries fully understood, and which allowed him to talk openly about himself and what was going on around him. He achieved a virtuoso perfection in creating sound-allegories - in the Eighth Quartet, for instance, he wove in with the tune of the revolutionary song his own cryptic sound-monogram, thus saying to his listeners: "Tormented by terrible lack of freedom... Dmitri Shostakovich." [Emphasis added. - I. M.]
Yakubov speaks of the till-recently hidden legacy of the liberal "resistance" to Soviet totalitarianism, referring to works by Shostakovich not in the official list, such as "parodies of the hymns of loyality honouring Party leaders" composed, with Isaak Glikman, in the late 1930s: "One of these was called Going along with Kaganovich [Lazar Kaganovich, one of Stalin's closest Politburo croneys] and another: The Song of the People's Iron Commissar Nikolai Ivanovich Yezhov [director of the NKVD during the purges of 1936-38]." Yakubov further confirms that Rayok was written (or at least originally drafted) "at the end of the 1940s", i.e., soon after the 1948 Congress.
It is the heterodox nature of Shostakovich's music, says Yakubov, which makes it so contemporary, so perpetually relevant. This is music which exists in relation to an increasingly chaotic world, to real events and tendencies; and it is precisely this facet of the composer's art which will ensure its survival. Yakubov sees Shostakovich's work as a force for unification in a time when "cultural disintegration" threatens us all. His vision of Shostakovich is thus, as it were, communitarian in principle.
Yakubov begins his interview with Rostropovich by asking him why he has chosen to do yet another Shostakovich series: "Why does the work of a composer who was working during the middle years of the century in a totalitarian society - which was alien and incomprehensible to most people elsewhere - still manage to excite not only his own fellow-countrymen, but the whole world as well?" Rostropovich replies by putting the question in historical perspective, blaming Lenin for inflicting a cruel tyranny which brought "starvation, cannibalism, concentration camps, mass executions and so on [to] a sixth of the Earth's surface". Rostropovich holds that Shostakovich resisted this tyranny by "describing, in a musical language that could be understood without an interpreter, the entire history of the Soviet Union and Russia". He continues: "I always believed that someone would eventually emerge in literature or painting whose work would convey the horrors and nightmares of our own age, in much the same way that Goya managed to capture life in Spain during his own time. Our era did not produce a painter of comparable calibre, but it did produce a composer, and this was one who lived through it all and expressed it all with genius, and who depicted the tragedy of this process, furthermore, not from outside like an observer, but from the inside... Many believed that a new era, an era of real freedom, had begun after the Revolution and that everything was going to start afresh... Many people with great gifts and high intelligence were completely taken in by it. I might mention here that, when he was young, Dmitri Dmitrievich [Shostakovich], whom I admire most profoundly, was also taken in, just as were - in some respects - Kandinsky and Meyerhold and such different poets as Blok and Mayakovsky... But then it quickly became clear that it was only [a new form] of terror... It was a total catastrophe and people went underground, they withdrew inside themselves. Shostakovich also withdrew and went underground... That is why the figure of Shostakovich is so important, for he personifies an entire epoch in the life of this planet, and not only for those who lived in totalitarian countries."
Asked by Yakubov to profile Shostakovich's essential qualities, Rostropovich singles out the composer's "deep humanity towards everything - in life, in his relationships and in his art". To illustrate this, Rostropovich recalls an occasion, following a play-through of the First Cello Concerto, when he and Shostakovich walked together through the old railway building in Leningrad: "I caught the way he looked at everything. Though it was summertime, the weather was still not yet hot, and there were enormous numbers of people either asleep or just lying around next to each other on the cold tiles of the floor. The look on his face was so full of compassion, the sight of it all made him wince. He did not notice me observing him but at that moment I realised, seeing him so moved by what was after all such an everyday sight, the extent to which he felt for other people. This was his true self."
Rostropovich dismisses what he calls the "rubbish" in Testimony to the effect that Shostakovich was critical of aspects of Prokofiev's life and works. He has, he says, an unpublished article in Shostakovich's own handwriting in which the composer states that "Prokofiev's War and Peace is an opera of genius". Rostropovich adds: "Shostakovich once even stated in an interview that the impulse for writing his First Cello Concerto sprang from Prokoviev's Sinfonia Concertante for cello and orchestra. It always delighted him. Whenever I played the Sinfonia Concertante in Moscow, Shostakovich would always come along if he was in town, and he never missed a single concert... He also remarked à propos the Sinfonia Concertante: 'How wonderful the cello sounds with the celesta!' There is such a passage in the finale, when the main theme drops to a slow tempo for the cello while the celesta plays ornamental passages. And at the end of the second movement in Shostakovich's First Concerto, when I am playing on the cello, the string harmonies and celesta play along with me as well. So there are things in his First Concerto which I know for sure he took from Prokofiev, because Shostakovich, in full admiration, pointed them out to me himself. To suggest antagonism towards Prokofiev is sheer nonsense, in my view." [For Shostakovich's remarks about Prokofiev in Testimony, see Ho and Feofanov, Shostakovich Reconsidered, pp. 91-105.]
Yakubov's own commentaries on the works performed during the LSO seasons are disappointingly at odds with his introductory essay in interpreting Shostakovich's music at face value or in comparatively unexploratory ways. For example, he hears the coda of the finale to the First Symphony as a straightforwardedly "triumphant, optimistic, joyful", identifies no ambiguity in the Second Symphony or the finale of the Sixth Symphony, and makes no attempt whatever at any interpretation of the Fourth Symphony. His reading of the Fifth Symphony acknowledges that it was composed "under conditions of spiritual constraint and bloody terror" (and takes into account the "Rebirth" code in the finale), but otherwise adopts the old Soviet concept of the work as embodying "the making of a man" ("the tormented search for inner repose"). His view of the march in the first movement is that it is merely thematically transformative - an abstract exploration of duality. For Yakubov, the Allegretto is "a carnival procession of masks", while the Largo evokes "an anxious search for the hero of the symphony which attains amazing power". In the coda of the finale, Yakubov hears "festive triumph" associated with the verses of "Rebirth": "the idea of culture triumphing over barbarism, and the immortality of beauty".
On the subject of the Seventh Symphony, Yakubov states that the work was, as tradition has it, written in Leningrad under siege, thus disregarding recent evidence to the contrary [see Ho and Feofanov, op. cit., pp. 150-59]. He likewise accepts the simple anti-Nazi interpretation of the Symphony, quoting in full Shostakovich's Soviet-published "commentary" on it. (Such Soviet-published statements are used throughout the booklet.) The Eighth Symphony also receives a standard treatment: a journey through the "circles of hell" followed by "a peaceful dawn after a dark night, melting everything away: in spite of everything, life goes on". The mood of the Ninth Symphony, according to Yakubov, is one of "cheerful humour... glad and light-hearted, transparent and scintillating": "an entertainment in five acts" with an "occasional sense of tragedy". David Oistrakh is quoted as saying of the solo part in the First Violin Concerto that "it is rather like a great Shakespearean role, full of meanings which demand a great deal of thought and emotional input from the interpreter"; Yakubov offers no exegesis of this "role". As for the Tenth Symphony, he hears it largely as a broodingly subjective work, mainly reflecting its composer's inner moods. No reference is made to the "portrait of Stalin" in the scherzo, as revealed in Testimony. The finale is described as evoking "the first ray of spring sunshine suddenly bursting through a heavy fog hanging over a winter's night". For Yakubov, this movement is "dominated by the image of nature, fully awake and jubilant, with the chattering of birds and the swift bubbling of brooks". His account of the Eleventh Symphony is comparably conventional, although he concedes that, from the première onwards, some people have believed that the work involves an allegorical cross-reference to the Hungarian Uprising of 1956.
Yakubov's remarks on the string quartets ("the confessional diaries of a great soul") follow the same conventional pattern. There is, for example, no recognition of the Jewish character of the Recitative and Romance in the Second Quartet. As with his views on Shostakovich's symphonic music, Yakubov's comments on the chamber music are pictorial, often nature-based, and generally biased to the meteorological (wind, rain, clouds, spring, and bright sunshine feature extensively). An exception is made for the Eighth Quartet, where Isaak Glikman's disclosures about the work are accepted (although no mention is made of Lev Lebedinsky's similar revelations). "It was," concedes Yakubov, "a requiem for the composer". (He quotes Shostakovich's third wife Irina as saying that, when she asked him why he had joined the Party in 1960, he told her: "If you love me, never ask me about that. They blackmailed me.")
Yakubov acknowledges that Shostakovich's failure to fulfill his frequent promise to compose something about Lenin calls into question his sincerity in composing the Twelfth Symphony, but quotes Irina's opinion that "Dmitri Dmitrievich thought highly of Lenin". Nothing is said of the complete redraft the Symphony underwent, or of the claim, made by Lebedinsky, that this redraft was to cover an originally too blatant satirical intention [see Ho and Feofanov, op. cit., pp. 248-9]. Nothing new is said about the Thirteenth Symphony, although Yakubov quotes an excerpt from a typical Soviet "review" of the work (i.e., an official reaction sent down from above in preparation for a ban): "The newspaper Sovetskaia Belorussia said, for example, that 'the ideological concept of the work is seriously flawed', that Shostakovich's 'sense of high duty has deserted him', and that he 'failed to understand the needs of society'. On Yevtushenko's poems, the critic complained that they 'distract attention and get in the way of understanding the music'!" Referring to the Second Violin Concerto, Yakubov proposes the gastronomical theory that "the Odessa street song 'Bagels for sale!'" probably refers to the Odessa origins of David Oistrakh, [since] the violinist was, as it happens, partial to all types of bagels, pastries, and doughnuts".
Yakubov reveals something new about the première of the Fourteenth Symphony:
At the general rehearsal, which was held in a hall full to overflowing, Shostakovich - in a rare personal departure - offered a few words of introduction. "You probably wonder why all of a sudden I've become so interested in such a ghastly and frightening topic?" said the sixty-year-old composer. "It's not because I'm already getting on in years, nor because, as the artillery men would say, 'the shells are exploding all around and friends are dying...'" The audience was listening to him with bated breath, and Shostakovich then sprang his surprise. He began to recite the passage that every Soviet schoolchild knows, the one they were made to learn by heart in literature lessons, as if it were great poetry - the words from the propaganda novel How the Steel was Tempered by Nikolai Ostrovsky: "Man has only one life, and must live it so that he does not recall with pain and regret the aimless lost years, and does not blush with shame over his mean and trivial past, so that when he dies he can say, 'All my life has been devoted to the struggle for the liberation of mankind.'" However, although Shostakovich began this passage using its original words, he left out its closing reference to the liberation of mankind, and said instead: "One must live life in all its aspects honestly, nobly, properly and in such a way as never to commit any shameless deeds." The important thing was not to die honestly, but to live honestly.
As Yakubov notes, Shostakovich was talking about "the moral basis of existence" (as he did to Nikolai Karetnikov, Edison Denisov, and Boris Tishchenko around this time). Westerners may not understand how explosive it was to raise the subject of morality in the USSR, for communism was based on the destruction of "bourgeois morality", which it replaced with allegiance to the Revolution and unwavering duty to the Party, whatever the Party-line dictated. To speak of "morals" was, by implication, anti-Soviet: the subject was a flash-point. Yakubov continues thus:
Shostakovich's words at the rehearsal caused such a tremendous shock among the party functionaries present in the hall that during the performance of the symphony that followed, Apostolov, an executive of the Soviet Communist Party's Central Committee and a former persecutor of Shostakovich, collapsed and died from a heart attack.
Shostakovich's reflections on morality are at their most uncompromising in the Suite on Verses of Michelangelo, as Yakubov takes great care to point out:
As always with Shostakovich, a work on "eternal themes" proved to be excitingly relevant for the audience and painfully topical for the authorities. Three central movements of the cycle echoed events in Soviet social and artistic life that were uncomfortably close: the persecution of dissidents, the exile of Solzhenitsyn, and the forced expulsion of Rostropovich and Vishnevskaya from the Soviet Union. These lines seemed to have been written expressly about Solzhenitsyn's years in the gulag and his subsequent fate: "For our sake he descended into the realm of evil... but the door, which even heaven had not closed, was spitefully shut in his face by his homeland" ("To an Exile"). These lines were taken, similarly: "Ingrate! To your own sorrow you prolonged the torments of your son. As there is nothing more base than his banishment, so the world has never had a higher knowledge of man." And the following lines rang out in a passionate tirade: "If only I could have been he! O if only his deeds and the grief of his exile had been mine, I could have wished no better fate in all the world!" However, even the censorship of that time was not prepared to pull Shostakovich up when he declared that these settings had been written for the fifth centenary of the great Italian's birth!
In the main, Manashir Yakubov's remarks about Shostakovich's music are cautious and clichéd in the old Soviet style. Middlebrow literalism abounds (e.g., the "crystal clarity and infinite depth" of the Viola Sonata, "the triumph of reason and goodness and the indestructible beauty of life" of the Eighth Symphony, etc, etc). Yet his ear for Shostakovich's musical personifications can be alert (e.g., the "small boy's voice" of the piccolo in the first movement of the Ninth Symphony, and the "intensely grieving and ailing, elderly hoarseness of the bassoon" in the same work's closing movements). Such views will not please the "pure music" adherents of Western anti-revisionism, yet arguably Yakubov is at his best when hearing Shostakovich's supposedly absolute music as illustrative, as in his account of the Third Symphony where he identifies the work's ethos as that of the Soviet mass demonstrations and street marches and describes its design as "a vast procession with a huge number of participants rolling past, one after the other, each performing something different - an entertainment or a song - in order to create a moving sequence of images". Yakubov points out the Symphony's "strong resemblance to Shostakovich's theatre and film music, and to the sports and athletics passages in the ballets": "The long slow movement in the 'Mayday' Symphony closely resembles the lyric Adagio from a ballet, while there is another 'genre' passage - quite unusual for an orchestral piece - in the musical portrayal of a meeting, which precedes the chorus in the Finale. The deafening sound of percussion and the powerful chorus of voices singing in unison (resembling a crowd shouting out slogans) give way to the sounds of a public speaker, here imitated by a trumpet solo and three trombones, in response to which we hear the hubbub of a huge crowd, represented by a glissando of cellos and double basses." In a similar vein, Yakubov identifies the ethos of the first movement of the Sixth Symphony as "a slow, funereal march" and speaks of "a marionette-like quality" about the work's scherzo.
Yakubov's general approach is distinctly redolent of the moribund Soviet style, as his trusting reliance on Shostakovich's Soviet-published materials makes plain. This, to some extent, contradicts his introductory remarks about the composer's anti-totalitarian engagement with external reality - which, in turn, suggests that, in his reference to "those glimmering, elusive double-meanings that everything possessed, but which we ourselves have only recently begun to acknowledge as an agonising aspect of our former physical, social, and psychological lives", Yakubov is speaking for himself, as one only recently coming to grips with the history of the USSR and with the Aesopian language it spawned. Accordingly, he produces only two new suggestions in the specifically Aesopian vein. He refers to The Golden Age as "a parody of propagandistic 'art'" (which Western critics have usually taken as the real thing), observing that the ballet was later banned on the grounds of "promoting ideology that was alien to the proletariat". He also reveals - comically, in the context of the high-mindedness of most of his commentary - that, following the "Suliko" (Stalin) quotation in the finale of the First Cello Concerto, the melodic shape of the movement's second theme is "based on a derisory tune, famous among musicians, that has the indecent words 'You can go and fuck off!' (the 1920s had seen publication of a jokey song called 'Go To Hell' using the same tune)". Yakubov remarks, discreetly: "It was obviously no accident that Shostakovich had difficulty telling the interviewer from Sovetskaia Kultura 'something specific about the content of the Concerto'." It appears that we now have a second "linked" code. First: "Tormented by terrible lack of freedom... Dmitri Shostakovich"; second: "Stalin... you can go and fuck off!" For this, we should be grateful to Manashir Yakubov.